Blog #14 – Optimism 2
Last time, we focused on optimism; in particular, highlighting ideas such as that, whether we realise it or not, as a species we tend towards optimism more than pessimism, and that far from the former being somehow a sign of self-delusion, it appears to be a key marker of psychological health. In this entry, we will continue on this track, looking to flesh out these and other relevant points.
When it is put to them, the idea of an optimistic bias being widespread among humanity surprises many people. Even if they accept the basic proposition, they might then be inclined to think that it applies to other people, as opposed to themselves.
Irrespective of what our conscious instincts tell us on this point, that is not how it appears to work in reality. Most of us, including many who may identify as pessimists, will exhibit this bias towards optimism, and will do so in terms of how we think, the decisions we make, and the behaviours in which we engage.
Psychologist Tali Sharot has written and spoken widely on the optimism bias. She describes it first and foremost as a cognitive illusion, one held by approximately four in every five people, i.e., 80% of the population.
In a 2012 TED Talk, she offered the following definition: “It’s our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events. So we underestimate our likelihood of suffering from cancer, being in a car accident. We overestimate our longevity, our career prospects. In short, we’re more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact.”
That final point is one of the key elements. It is not just that most of us expect positive events to far outweigh negative events, it is that that process occurs without us necessarily realising on a conscious level that it is taking place, and, for some of us, it takes place without us even identifying as optimists.
It can be difficult to fully grasp what we mean here without offering some concrete examples. Sharot does exactly that. In the 2012 TED Talk, the first example she pointed to was marriage, highlighting how in the Western world divorce rates run to about 40%, yet newlyweds rate their own likelihood of experiencing marital breakdown at 0%. She adds that even divorce lawyers, the very subset who should know better, are just as likely to underestimate their own prospects for seeing their marriage fail! Her take home message here reinforces the point: “So it turns out that optimists are not less likely to divorce, but they are more likely to remarry.” And, it seems reasonable to imagine that even individuals who identify as pessimists enter into marriage in the first place with the expectation that the relationship will endure.
Sharot also highlights how these cognitive illusions do not necessarily extend to the world around us. Rather, they can apply to ourselves and those close to us, but may not extend much further, depending upon the circumstances. To illustrate this, she points to survey results showing that 75% of UK families felt optimistic about the future of their own families, but that only 30% felt families were faring better in general at that point than a few generations previously. This, she maintains, highlights that while we can be somewhat pessimistic about the fate of those around us and the direction of the country in which we live, “private optimism about our own personal future remains persistent.”
However, it is also not difficult to think of ways in which this may manifest negatively. This same tendency towards optimism can encourage us to engage in risky behaviours, or at the very least partially blind us to the possibility of adverse consequences, at least as they relate to us. For example, no one starts smoking with the expectation of becoming addicted, yet many do. We are aware of the cancer risks associated with smoking, but deep down we don’t think that is going to happen to us. If we did, surely we either wouldn’t start smoking in the first place or would stop at the first sign of a negative impact. Sharot sums up the internal processes at work here by stressing that people are aware of the dangers, they are aware of cancer risk and relevant statistics, but that ultimately: “Yes, smoking kills, but mostly it kills the other guy.”
As alluded to briefly last time, this tendency may well serve a useful purpose in evolutionary terms. Sharot suggests that the optimism bias is so widespread that it may not merely be a cultural phenomenon. Instead, it may be that our brains are effectively wired to look on the bright side. Evidence to support this idea has been found in several research studies. Optimism has been linked with greater health and general well-being, even longer life. One of the most interesting research findings in this area relates to how men tend to overestimate how appealing they are to women. While this may be amusing, we can also see how men inclined to think this way may be more successful at propagating their genes, which in turn, from the evolutionary perspective, would help to ensure the perpetuation of the tendency!
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.